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PREP SOFTBALL: New look, same culture

COVINGTON, Ga. — It has been abundantly clear all offseason the excitement Eastside has for the upcoming season. Players had a bigger bounce in their steps as they went through summer workouts together. Those same players donned smiling faces in spite of all the coming changes for the program.

Not only will it be a new season in a new region, but the team will open up a new field along with numerous new faces who will take the field game in and game out.

In the middle of all the new, though, there is one thing veteran head coach Heather Wood hopes remains true: Culture.

“We are going to do whatever we can to protect that and keep our culture as strong as it has always been,” Wood said. “Yeah, we have a bigger school and a lot of things have changed, but we also want to do whatever we can to keep Eastside, Eastside. We put in so many years to create that culture that we want to continue that winning tradition here at the new school.”

An example of that winning tradition was just last year. Eastside is coming off a 2021 season in which they were region runners-up and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the Class 5A state playoffs.

Since then, eight players graduated from the program causing some voids left to be filled.

Wood highlighted Anslee Saunchegraw, Emma Hopper, Dezaria Johnson, Eva Davis, Allie Vaughn, Gracie Griffis and Lila Whitmire as a few players who have caught her attention this offseason. Wood also stressed how the whole team’s offseason work has impressed her.

“We really have a lot of young players who have so much potential and who are coachable that will, over time, be the core of our program,” Wood said.

With young players making up a good portion of the roster, Wood said she expects growing pains. Even so, Wood is thrilled for what this season could bring for the Lady Eagles.

“We got a lot of young girls who are going to come in and step right in to big positions on varsity,” Wood said. “It’s exciting to have young players. It’s our future and a lot of development will take place this year, too. We definitely have a great young group to work with that I’m excited about.

“They’re very coachable, they want to do well, they put a lot of time in during the offseason, but they’re going to have to come in and fill varsity positions right away.”

Wood is entering her 11th overall season, serving two stints from 2006-2008 and 2014 to present, as the Lady Eagles’ head coach. She also was an assistant coach of the team from 2003-2006 before being promoted to the helm.

With all of that experience, specifically with Eastside, Wood described how this year’s team is unique compared to past teams. In fact, she labeled this team as “balanced.”

“This is a team that’s very coachable, likeable, eager to do well and they’ve put in a lot of time in the offseason,” Wood said. “They are going to be thrown into [varsity action] right away. I know we’re going to encounter growing pains in the beginning and that is expected. We’ve just got to keep pushing them and pushing that potential that we see that they already have.”

Another different aspect of the Lady Eagles will be the home field they’ll play on. An up to date field and playing facility was part of Eastside High School’s transition to an entire new building.

And, while moving facilities has brought on more chaos this summer, Wood said an added energy has come along when preparing for the season ahead.

“That is something we’ve focused on,” Wood said. “Losing a lot of players, we knew we had some things to make adjustments with. But [moving to a new field] does add some enthusiasm, energy and something to be excited about right away. I think we needed that.

“The players deserve nice facilities and a nice field and having this provided for them is going to be a great motivator for us this year.”

Eastside will go through this upcoming year as a member of Region 8-AAAAA, which is the region it was a part of last season, too. However, there’ll be new teams on the Lady Eagles’ radar.

Region 8-AAAAA will still have Clarke Central and Loganville while also welcoming Winder-Barrow, Flowery Branch, Heritage (Conyers), Jefferson and Winder-Barrow.

Despite all of the changes, though, the goal remains the same for Eastside. Its season opener at Union Grove on Aug. 5 will be the first game toward making a run in the state playoffs and advancing to Columbus in the quest for a state championship.

While Wood acknowledged that it will be a challenge, she has full belief in her team’s competitive spirit to take them a long way.

“We have enough returning players with the young players that I think we have the potential to do a lot of great things,” Wood said. “We just have to drill them that we want to compete every day. With how our region is, it makes us step up as well and better prepare us for playoffs. We know it’s going to take time, but we are excited because [our team] is great.”

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